Students leave home to encounter new lifestyles

Kaylan Ware and Somer Benton


Distance doesn’t deter exchange students from buying a one-way ticket and embarking on a year-long journey to the United States.

Au revoir Paris, Bonjour Decatur

From the 41-square-mile capital of France to the four-square-mile city of Decatur, Blanche Francheterre spends her junior year adjusting to an entirely new environment.

“My case wasn’t very usual,” Francheterre said, “because I know one of the juniors [at Decatur]. When I told his mother I wanted to come to the U.S. for a year, she was like, ‘You have to come to Decatur,’ so she found the family for me.”

Francheterre’s father was initially hesitant, but after researching exchange programs, he accepted the idea.

After five years of English classes, Francheterre felt comfortable leaving her mother, father and younger brothers for a new experience.

“I wanted a break and a change of space,” Francheterre said.

Growing up in Paris, Francheterre familiarized herself with big city life. She recognizes and enjoys the culture of Decatur as a smaller city.

“I love [Decatur],” Francheterre said. “You can find everything, but it’s not like a big city. And I think it’s a good balance between a small town and a big city.”

Francheterre is still adjusting to American culture. Even though Francheterre is fluent in English, “teenager language” gives her some difficulty.

“In class I understand almost everything, but in the beginning it was kind of weird because I didn’t know how you call the materials, like binders. I was like ‘what is this?’” Francheterre said.

Francheterre will not receive credits for courses taken at Decatur, but the experience in America is worth more than repeating a grade in France.

In France, students are required to test at the end of their junior and senior school years to continue on to college after graduation.

Once Francheterre returns to France, she will have two more years of high school to complete, unless she passes the mandatory graduation test divided by junior and senior year.

Until then, she will continue running cross country and living as a Decaturite.

Hasta luego, Madrid

Three factors contributed to junior Alba Bergaz Alonso’s desire to travel to the United States.

The first, an American assistant teacher’s photos with high school friends that, to Bergaz, represented life in America.

The second, a previous visit to the U.S. west coast.

The third, “typical” films about high school students in the U.S.

As a young child, Bergaz’s parents introduced the idea of going to America as an exchange student. Last year, when she began expressing more interest in an exchange program, controversy arose.

Bergaz’s parents wanted to ensure their daughter knew exactly what she was signing up for. They discussed the amount of time she’d be in the U.S., which was their major concern because she is their only child.

She wished to stay for a complete school year – nothing less.

Bergaz and her family connected with an exchange company in Spain and later with an American nonprofit called CIEE. The agencies worked together to translate Bergaz’s transcript.

When Bergaz arrived in New York at the end of July, she met exchange students from other countries. Her flight to the U.S. was filled with students from Spain traveling to experience life in America. After spending three days in New York, Bergaz set off to her new home in Decatur.

The family hosting Bergaz happens to be a couple without children, so she remains an only child. She did not have the advantage, as some exchange students do, of having a host sibling attending school with her.

Not having a host sibling directly affects the social aspect of school.

“This first day, I thought it would be amazing, but it’s not. It’s horrible,” Bergaz said.

Bergaz’s first day was nothing like the stereotypical depictions of high school that lead her to expect a welcoming environment.

“No one knows you, so no one is going to speak to you,” Bergaz said.

To help her adjust, Bergaz joined extracurricular activities.

“I think it’s important to join to a sport because there are more people. And to sign up to anything, ‘Who wants to…’ ‘Me!’” Bergaz said.

As the social factors of school settled, Bergaz realized how much she enjoyed her classes.

In comparison to Spain, she believes instruction at Decatur High School is practical. Participating in simulations, working with partners and creating projects are activities that separate Decatur from Bergaz’s previous school.

“That’s the thing I love about America. I like art. In Spain we don’t give as much value to the arts,” Bergaz said. “In my opinion, Spain is so old in that sense.”

In Spain, Bergaz attended a bilingual school. Her classes were taught in English. Alonso started learning English at the age of three but admits that she did not seriously study the language until sixth or seventh grade.

Bergaz has always dreamed of living in America. Her mother gave her the choice of spending a year of high school in the U.S. now or traveling for college. Though Bergaz chose her visit to be during high school, she still hopes to spend a year one or two at an American university.

From Music Midtown to Florida’s beaches to her new found fondness for American football, for Bergaz, “[the] U.S. has been ideal.”

Behind the Placement

Nacel Open Door is a nonprofit exchange organization that offers short term and academic year long programs. The organization partners with 40 countries.

Current Nacel Open Door coordinator Jessica Reese experienced the exchange program firsthand through her daughter’s school, Academe of the Oaks. While her daughter was in high school, the family hosted seven students through Nacel.

Around that time, the current coordinator decided to quit, and Reese stepped up as the short-term program coordinator.

“[The short term program] is a really nice way to dip your feet into an exchange,” she said. “I find that the longer you keep a student, it’s much more rewarding.”

Reese also hosted a student from Germany through a school exchange program. At the time, Rebecca was a freshman. Later that year, it was her daughter’s turn to visit Germany as an exchange student.

Rebecca is now in Germany. After high school graduation, she traveled to Kobern-Gondorf, in western Germany, on the Mosel River for a month and decided to stay.

Rebecca currently lives with her host family from her freshman year. The family set up a room for Rebecca, took her shopping and drove her to job interviews.

“When someone stays for an extended period of time, they really become a part of your family,” Reese said.

As coordinator, Reese looks for families that may be fit to host a student. She frequently sees families opt out of housing a student because they do not believe they live in a home to do so.

Reese has an important reminder for undecided families, though.

“Treat your student like he or she is your family because you will exhaust yourself.”